Originally published in Forbes
By Randy Illig
Sales leaders have relied on a formula to make decisions for decades. They have a profile of what a successful, experienced salesperson looks like, what the right sales process is, and what effective customer engagement looks like.
All that is out the window with coronavirus.
For many of us, customers have stopped buying or disappeared. New prospects are hard to locate. Our formula for pipeline to target no longer works.
So how do we navigate an unknown future and create a new formula for success?
I spoke with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the New York Times bestseller The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives and Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, for his insights on new ways of thinking about solving sales problems.
“No matter how smart you are, if you keep using past thinking, you’re not going to solve the problem,” Mlodinow says. “Now, a whole different set of rules apply.”
Here’s how he recommends sales leaders find a new formula of success in the midst of the demise of the old one:
- Identify the hidden assumptions that might be tripping you up. Think back to those riddles from childhood: A person is reading at night when the lights go out. It’s not an ebook, but they keep reading without a problem. How? The reason that riddles stump us is because we’re unconsciously assuming something that isn’t actually true. (In this example, we assume the person is reading with their eyesight. But they were actually reading Braille.) “So often the reason you don’t see the answer to something is you’re making the wrong assumption. Or you don’t even realize that you have those assumptions,” Mlodinow says. “The knack of it is to say to yourself, ‘What am I assuming?’ It’s very hard. It takes practice to get used to.” Transfer this skill to your professional situation by listing out the assumptions you’re operating under within the sales environment: My clients are too stressed to hear from me or Video calls aren’t as effective as face-to-face meetings. Now, look at them clearly. Which ones might not apply in this new reality?
- Move from your analytical thinking mode to your creative thinking mode. Now that these assumptions that have been fueling our decision-making thus far have changed, how do we create new ways of operating? The key is moving from analytical to creative thinking.“Analytical thinking is good in a normal situation,” Mlodinow says. “You have a framework and the rules of the game. You’re reasoning; you’re following the laws of logic. That’s how you execute things. But that’s not where you get new ideas. Elastic thinking is where creativity comes from. Imagination is not about rules. It’s about breaking the rules.” There’s no shortcut to moving into the mode of creative thinking: we have to take the time and create the space for it, right when we feel under pressure the most. “Fear of failure and time pressure are the enemies of coming up with ideas,” Mlodinow says. “When you’re in a hurry or afraid of failure, your filters will automatically squeeze down on the conventional ideas, and the interesting new ones won‘t come through. You have to let crazy ideas come into your brain and not knock them out. Don’t worry about how quickly you’ll arrive at an answer. Turn off your phone. Keep away your other thoughts, almost like a meditative state. Go jogging, take long showers, do things that keep your brain from focusing on today’s work but let percolation happen. Then ideas will start to pop into your head.”
- Diversify your inputs. Many organizations are trying to solve our current problems the way they’ve solved problems before. They’re talking to the same people they always talk to and coming up with the same ideas they’ve always come up with. Instead of saying, “Let’s meet together, and we’ll solve this problem,” sales leaders may be better off not meeting at all—at least, at first—and instead finding five new people to work with to generate new ideas.“The worst thing is to be frozen in your thinking,” Mlodinow says. “Part of that is being frozen in your group. You won’t get new thinking. Just like traveling gets you out of your bubble, the same thing happens with your business.”
Once you’ve done the work to make your thinking more generative, only then can you analytically decide the best plan of action. Choose a course of action and get to work implementing it, using the discipline of strategy execution. Remember: you’ll need to repeat this process as circumstances evolve—because it’s almost guaranteed that we haven’t seen the last of major change and disruption in the sales profession.